Mid-Summer Hallucination 7, 2021, C-Print © Bryan Graf. Courtesy the artist and Tracey Morgan Gallery, NC
Southern resonance in Daniel Lanois’s Sling Blade score
By Tim Greiving
He was in Ireland producing The Unforgettable Fire for U2, during the phase of his career when he was a mostly invisible but vital musical presence on great albums by much starrier artists than himself. The Liffey divides Dublin’s north and south, and the water’s route through the ancient city is lined with a proper brick levee as opposed to, say, the Mississippi’s muddy riverbank. “If the Liffey spills over the edge, it spills over the rim—as if it’s a teacup,” says Lanois. “Sometimes it is two inches from spilling, and that’s when I looked into it one night and I saw the blackness of the water, and it had my reflection in it.”
In that moment came the lyrics: “Oh deep water / black and cold like the night / I stand with arms wide open / I’ve run a twisted line / I’m a stranger in the eyes of the maker.” He found a searching tune for those words, sung over hymnlike chords, after he moved to New Orleans in order to soak up some of the music traveling on the heavy Southern air. That’s where Lanois produced the album Yellow Moon for the Neville Brothers and Oh Mercy for Bob Dylan, and where he set up Kingsway Studios in an old mansion on Esplanade Avenue in the French Quarter. Message and melody coalesced into “The Maker,” a modern prayer that anchored the album Acadie, Lanois’s debut as his own singer-songwriter.
A few years later, actor Billy Bob Thornton, who had relocated from his native Hot Springs, Arkansas, to the Pacific Palisades, was sitting on the floor with his son Willy on his lap and listening to that album through headphones. It was 1996, and he needed a composer for his film-directing debut. As he listened to “The Maker,” he later recalled, he realized: this is the movie.
Based on a short one-man play and a character created and performed by Thornton, Sling Blade follows an Arkansan with intellectual disabilities as he reenters society after spending most of his life in a mental hospital for carving up his mother and her lover with a kaiser blade (“some folks call it a sling blade”) in his youth. In the feature-length film, Thornton’s laconic but lovable Karl befriends a young boy, played with preternatural grace by Lucas Black, whose mother’s abusive boyfriend (a daringly despicable Dwight Yoakam) reignites the anger that drove Karl to murder in the first place. Filmed in the town of Benton outside Little Rock, Sling Blade drips with local colloquialism and personality; it’s as much a portrait of life in a small Southern town as a character study of Karl.
“I don’t think Billy heard specific Southern tonalities” in Acadie, says Lanois. “He might have heard the search in that work. He’s a storyteller. He might have heard a few stories in the sounds.” The music of Sling Blade may not be stereotypically Southern, and Thornton never asked Lanois to conjure the locale or write in any style other than his own—but somehow the spirit of the place is present within the washy, ambient, at times celestial tones that Lanois specialized in as an in-demand producer during those years. And maybe the spirit of the South was in the Sling Blade score because it had already gotten into Lanois’s bones many years before, drifting all the way up to the Hamilton, Ontario, of his childhood.
Lanois was raised in the 1950s by the radio, which transmitted rock & roll by the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and the Meters. “The South moved up north at a certain point by radio, but also by Chess Records,” says Lanois, who especially liked songs about hard work—like Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine.” He even wrote one himself about tobacco picking, “because that’s what we had near where I grew up.” His Québécois uncles would sing sticky-sweet traditional melodies that he likens to Appalachian folk tunes, which baked into him a love for the stories that a good melody can tell. But when he discovered the blues, he heard something unfamiliar, something profound: “We did not have that, because that’s more pain,” he says. “There’s more mourning. It’s a deeper longing.”
He came to appreciate that, in the South, music comes up organically from the neighborhoods—like the late Rockin’ Dopsie, a Louisianan who Lanois would later collaborate with and who simply had a genetic or maybe a God-given way with the accordion. Whereas in Ontario, “if you wanted music, you went to music school. You’d be in high school: ‘Well, I think I might take music.’ ‘Maybe Rita should take piano.’ These are the kind of terms that get thrown around in the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. No, you don’t take it. It’s not as if you’re taking a drug or a painkiller. You are something.” Lanois bucked against the conservatory mentality, likening classical orchestras to a kind of karaoke. “I’ve heard that Beethoven piece before. ‘But there’s a new guy waving his baton!’ Let’s build a whole new season based on some guy from Honduras with Eraserhead hair and a baton. He’s really going to be that different this time around?” No—Lanois wanted to invent.
Lanois, now seventy, started to make a name while running a small recording studio with his brother in the family basement. Christian groups and quartets who were touring Canada would pop in and record, which instilled a lifelong love of gospel music in him. The Lanois brothers soon upgraded to a studio that took over an entire house, and he began tinkering with effects and atmospheres on guitars and recording machines as a producer-performer on albums by Martha and the Muffins and the children’s troubadour Raffi, making the studio itself come alive and sing. If Phil Spector created a wall of sound, Daniel Lanois found the sound in the walls. That put him on Brian Eno’s map, an experimental producer to the stars, and together they went on a cosmic journey of sound-making that was unfairly reduced as “ambient” or “new age.” But almost immediately U2 and other popular artists—including Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and Emmylou Harris—sought out Lanois for the mysterious fairy dust he could sprinkle on their songs, both with his studio wizardry and his almost spiritual pedal steel guitar.
His restless creative spirit has taken him all around the world, and in the mid-’80s he felt drawn to New Orleans, where ancient African rhythms resonated from Congo Square and where killer Lafayette bands destroyed every night at the Maple Leaf Bar in Uptown. Where musicians were telling stories. “It’s hard to talk about if you haven’t been down there,” he says. “At a certain time of the year it’s hard to be outside because of the humidity, but the humidity holds a lot of stories. It stops you in your tracks, and gets you thinking about some of the more primal concerns—you know, sexuality, food, labor, staying out in the sun. And listening to lore, folklore.” Ranging from the sultry rhythms emanating from the square to the sacred songs echoing from Baptist churches on the small but mighty Hammond organ, New Orleans had it all, and Lanois took on some of the family traits of his new adopted home. “When you have that kind of energy in the air, that’s a pretty good school to go to,” he says. “It’s a class that’s not about to get out early—no, it’s going to go all night. For a Canadian kid, I looked for soul in music. That’s what Quincy Jones told me. He says, ‘It doesn’t matter the genre of music. Every music has its soul.’”
When he produced for the Nevilles, after attending several of their shows around town and approaching them about collaborating, Lanois created a Louisiana food-and-family atmosphere inside an old apartment building. (“Many of the songs were recorded live,” Charles Neville told the Miami Herald in 1989. “Even when everybody wasn’t playing, we were all there, sharing energy and spiritual power.”) Dylan stopped by one of their sessions, and “I played him a few tracks,” Lanois remembers, “and he recognized that we were hungry for something. Even if we didn’t know exactly what it was, we were committed to what was happening at the time, and we had an eye to the future. We wanted to give the South a whole new name.” Dylan wanted some of that same flavorful mélange, and the producer helped breathe life back into Dylan’s midlife career with his earthy yet ethereal touch on songs like “Most of the Time.” “One thing about Lanois that I liked,” the Nobel-winning poet wrote in his 2004 memoir, “is that he didn’t want to float on the surface. He didn’t even want to swim. He wanted to jump in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid.”
Even though some critics tired of Lanois’s touch—Rolling Stone went from calling him “the most important record producer to emerge in the ’80s” to writing in one review that “as usual, Lanois overdoes the schlock atmospherics”—it was truly a Midas touch for artists. He mined critical and commercial gold for Peter Gabriel on the 1986 album So, and a blockbuster-selling Album of the Year, again for U2, with The Joshua Tree in 1987. But Daniel Lanois had spent so long discovering the soul of others that, by 1989, it was time for him to reveal his own. Acadie found the common ground between the French-Canadian soil of his birth and the French-Cajun (“Acadian”) waters of his rebirth. It’s folk music with a shimmer, like someone singing around a campfire in the middle of heaven. The songs are longing, equally natural and supernatural, from the wispy opening track “Still Water” to the finale, a futuristic arrangement of “Amazing Grace” sung by Aaron Neville. “The Maker” is Lanois’s slightly ambiguous answer to “Amazing Grace”—a classical hymn pulsing with an addictive, even sensual bass line and trailing sonic stardust. When Bono included the song on his “60 Songs That Saved My Life” playlist in 2020, he addressed Lanois in an accompanying letter: “You are a priest of music…and you will make a human sacrifice if you have to, and you don’t care if it’s me, them or you. Still, there’s a touch of the carnival about you…you’re not all lent, you know....You marshal the chaos, and turn it not exactly into order…but something beautiful. The beauty of truth, as the man said.”
Something about those ancient chords resonated in Billy Bob Thornton, and Lanois reprised them in different forms at key moments in Sling Blade. There’s a haunting, layered vocal version when Karl goes back to his old house and reunites with his apathetic father (Robert Duvall). A dreamy, almost liquid statement of the chords on pedal steel accompanies Karl’s visit to the grave of the baby brother he was tasked with burying, which continues as he stands on a bridge overlooking the Saline River. This latter variation, which Lanois called “Omni,” hovers heavenly over Karl’s face as the film fades to black—the avenging angel having struck again. Those chords “tend to bring out an emotion in people,” says Lanois. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re accustomed to hearing them in church, where it’s a time of reassessment and kind of the reset button on Sunday. When we hear those kinds of chords and melodies, it suggests something ancient, something that was before us, and that we might have a responsibility to carry something to the next generation. Whether we believe in God or even go to church, I think something ancient wakes up something in us, and we want to pass it on to someone else.”
There’s a sleepy quality to the Sling Blade score, especially in the opening track “Asylum.” It sounds like the barometric pressure before a storm, like the air is heavy with something. Lanois says it’s the sound of time—of all the time Karl’s been quietly living behind institutional walls—but it also drawls and lumbers like Karl, too. Thornton transformed himself to become this deceptively simple character with the jutting jaw and vacant stare and grunted good old boy slang, but if the actor and Karl have something in common, it’s their pace. Lanois remembers his very first phone conversation with Thornton in 1996: “I realized that he was quite a bit like me—he spoke slowly. And there was not this discomfort about wanting to fill every little space, so it was okay to pause a little bit and be thoughtful, and then carry on talking.”
The first composer Thornton contacted about scoring his film had wanted to accentuate the humor in Karl’s funny way of talking, of being—but that was entirely wrong. “You could’ve done Winnie the Pooh or something,” Lanois says, imitating a bouncing tuba motif, “a little more Andy of Mayberry, sort of laughing at the lighter side of life. But I guess Billy wanted to be a little more serious about his message, because he’s a deep cat.” Thornton made only one request of Lanois: full commitment. Everyone else who’d worked to make this little gem of a movie had given it their full heart and both feet. Lanois said no problem—that’s how he always worked.
By this time, he was renting an old Mexican movie theater in Oxnard, about an hour up the coast from Los Angeles. It’s where Dylan test drove the album Time Out of Mind and where Lanois would produce the 1997 Willie Nelson record Teatro, the name of the venue. “The fact that we were in a theater, making something that would be seen in a theater in the end, had something kind of sweet about it,” the composer says. Lanois had no interest in the typical, streamlined approach to scoring films, and he didn’t want to hire a bunch of workaday session musicians. Instead, he created a merry little band—including guitarist-singer Daryl Johnson from New Orleans and “a couple of cats from Toronto”—who all holed up somewhere in town or the motel next door. Lanois told them: “We’re gonna roll up our sleeves, we’re gonna live here, we’re gonna get this thing done for Billy and keep working on it till Billy loves it.” Reflecting on the commitment, he says, “I think Billy really appreciated that we got into the depth of it. Whatever you’re hearing in there, Southern wise, I think that’s just two people just wanting things to be great.”
The actual technique on the prefatory “Asylum” wasn’t exactly Southern, per se, Lanois notes. Carrying on some of the tricks he’d developed with Eno, Lanois built guitar effects using a pedal and feedback loop, hit record, then “snowballed” and overdubbed a guitar performance as each looping pass degenerated. The lengthy cue plays through most of the opening sequence, from the introduction of Karl in the state mental hospital through his breathtaking monologue about the murder that put him there. Lanois remembers making ambient records using recordings of frogs and crickets back in the ’80s, “so the atmosphere was always a little bit textural, transporting, and it took you to a place where there was some connection with nature. ‘Asylum’ has a little bit of that. It’s atmospheric; it’s almost as if you’re walking along a path and that’s what you’re hearing in the night.”
As Karl, discharged from the hospital, exits a bus to walk through his old town, Lanois and his band put some pep in the character’s step with a twangy groove piece led by harmonica. Outside the laundromat, where Karl is enjoying some “french fried potaters” from the Frostee Cream, he meets up with young Frank—and they quickly develop an unlikely but beautiful friendship, like a contemporary Boo Radley and Scout. Later, at Frank’s quiet sanctuary in the woods, Karl tells Frank about the little brother he was forced to bury alive, and Lanois’s voice doubles with guitar and a ghostly synthesizer in a nostalgic lament. And when Karl is baptized in the Saline, the voice of Emmylou Harris, stacked into a one-woman chorus, warbles the melody of “Shenandoah.” All of it is bathed in Lanoisian reverb and atmosphere, achieved through the technological alchemy he developed in Ontario—but in that fog are the musical ghosts of the South.
It’s all just storytelling, says Lanois, who most recently made the album Heavy Sun with several church folk from Louisiana on the strength of an idea: “Let’s see if we can take gospel music to the future.” When Willy Thornton, who was sitting on his father’s lap on that fateful day in 1996, grew up and took a job in Toronto, Billy Bob asked Lanois to look after him. “He came over...and he lived in my studio for a year,” Lanois laughs. “So we’re kind of family in a strange way. I guess Billy never really bought into too much bullshit, and he might have appreciated that some of us Canadians think we have a pretty good bullshitometer. So maybe he appreciated some of that in me.”